Why are American educators angrier than their British counterparts?

Last month, I was lucky enough to speak at the American Educational Research Association’s annual conference (AERA13), where the theme was Education and Poverty. Some of the research presented was utterly compelling: carefully-collected, long-term, large-scale empirical evidence, all pointing towards growing inequality of opportunity.  Young people are hungry for education, the argument went, but the US schooling system lets them down.

In the area I’m most interested in – access to higher education – several speakers talked compellingly about the problems faced by first generation applicants in accessing financial aid, getting appropriate advice, and negotiating the admissions process. The conference also screened a number of films, including this brilliant one about four ‘undocumented’ students and their attempts to reach college.

The visit of US Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan, was most controversial. Protests took place outside the venue and, inside, Not In My Name flyers were waved throughout. Duncan’s love of school testing does not sit well with AERA members. His defence was “Chicago-style nonsense,” according to one entertaining report.

The conference wasn’t all downbeat. Delegates clearly wanted to make education a fun and productive time for all young people. Social media was repeatedly cited as possible social leveler, gaming as a fresh way to engage young people on their own terms, and wrap-around policies as essential for less advantaged children.

At times, I wondered what the conference would make of educational policy in the UK, which seems not only to ignore empirical evidence but to purposely move in the opposite direction? Without wishing to generalise, AERA seems more politically aware (or maybe just political) than BERA.

I left thinking that if Obama’s Duncan gets this much stick, maybe us UK educationalists go a little too easy on Cameron’s Gove?


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